By Cristina Cabal

24 November 2017 - 12:54

Multicoloured pencils on a wooden surface
'Ask learners to write a secret list of ten themed words.' Photo ©

Monoar licensed under Creative Commons CC0 and adapted from the original

Cristina Cabal, winner of the British Council's TeachingEnglish blog award, has new and improved games for revising English words. 

Turning passive vocabulary (the words you know) into active vocabulary (the words you use) is one of my main concerns when teaching. To do this, I keep three key words in mind – internalise, retain and retrieve.

Learners need to first learn the new language, then feel confident using the new structure, expression or word. They have to be exposed to the new term multiple times, with different examples and in different contexts. After some time, the word becomes familiar and therefore usable.

These are some games I use to revise and practise vocabulary with my learners. They require little to no preparation, which is something all busy teachers can appreciate.

Everything you need before you begin these vocabulary activities 


For all of these activities, your learners will need cards or slips of paper equal in number to the terms you want to revise. They will do all the writing.


For some games, you will need to prepare questions on your topic. If you are working with a topic-based course book, you can use this as a guide.


Revise target vocabulary before the game – this step is necessary for the next step to flow. Stand in the middle of the class and use the target vocabulary fluently. Give a synonym or a brief definition. If you already have the cards with the target vocabulary from an earlier lesson, have a competition, awarding one point to the student who guesses the word on the card based on a prompt.

1. The secret list

Pair learners and ask them to write a secret list of eight to ten of the themed words you have just revised together.

Learner A asks learner B the first question. Learner A answers and crosses out the words on the list as student B uses them.

The aim is for learner A to cross out all the words on the list. When all the words are crossed out, it is learner B’s turn to ask a question.

Once they have answered all the questions, learners compare lists. The winner is the learner who has used more of the words on their partner’s list.

2. Do you have a question?

Write six to ten words or expressions you want to revise on cards, big enough to see from a distance. Stick them on the walls of the class for everybody to see.

Ask the learners to work in pairs. For each word on the wall, the pair must think of an open question using the target vocabulary.

Walk around the room and help with grammar and spelling.

Once the pair have their question, ask them to write it on a post-it note or a scrap of paper and put it next to the target word on the wall.

When they have finished and all the questions are displayed on the walls, ask learners to stand up and, in new groups, do a gallery walk discussing the questions.

3. Chain story using cards

Ask learners to form groups of four, and give each group as many cards or slips of paper as words you want to revise.

Revise the words and ask learners in their groups to write them on the slips of paper as you go along. Each slip of paper should have only one word.

Ask learners in their groups to sit facing each other and give them the beginning of a story. This could be a phrase or an image – Pobble 365 is a good resource.

Ask them to lay out the cards, face down on the table in random order. Tell them to pick up two cards and leave the rest on a neat pile in the middle of the table.

The game is to continue the story using the vocabulary on the cards. When it is their turn to continue the story, they can do so by picking only one word at a time.

When a learner has successfully used a card, they can pick up another one and wait for their turn. If they can’t use any of their cards, they miss their turn and the next learner continues the story.

The winner is the person who has used the most cards.

4. In the bag

Just like the activity above, ask learners to form groups of four, and give each group as many cards or slips of paper as words you want to revise. But this time, the cards are in a bag.

In this game learners will be playing in pairs, against the other pair in their group of four.

Team A starts the game. One of the learners in team A draws a card from the bag and invents a sentence containing the word on the card, but substituting the word by a beep sound. The other student has to guess the word.

Each team has one minute to guess each word. If the team cannot guess the word, it must return to the bag.

5. Keywords

Think of questions that will spark discussion. These can be on a theme.

Ask learners to work in pairs or in groups of three.

Write the first question on the board.

Give each learner a card with a word you want to them to use, and ask them to talk about the question on the board. They must include the vocabulary on their cards in their conversation.

Set a time limit. When the time us up, if the learner has used the word(s) on their card, they will be awarded one point.

Ask learners to pass their cards to the group of learners on their right. Write a new question on the board, and repeat the game.

6. Gallery talk

Ask learners to work in pairs or in groups of three.

Stick slips of paper containing questions – and cards with the target vocabulary – to the classroom walls.

Ask learners to stand next to a question in pairs. Explain that they must have a conversation, including all or some of the words on the cards.

After a few minutes ask learners to move clockwise to the next question, and repeat the exercise using the target vocabulary.

Teachers, visit our TeachingEnglish website for more lesson plans and activities, and find out how you can become a TeachingEnglish blogger.

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